TARBES, France – Lance Armstrong stayed in third place at the Tour de France on Sunday after a deliberate ride on the last day in the Pyrenees.
Pierrick Fedrigo of France sped past a lone rival in a breakaway to win the mountainous ninth stage. Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy held the yellow jersey for a third straight day. He is followed in the overall standings by Astana teammates Alberto Contador and Armstrong.
“Today was pretty controlled, I thought, although it’s never easy,” Armstrong said. “It was very hot; the tempo was pretty regular.”
Nocentini is six seconds ahead of Contador, the 2007 champion. Armstrong, the seven-time champion, is eight seconds behind.
“We (Astana) just sat there and kind of rode our race,” Armstrong said.
Levi Leipheimer of the United States follows Armstrong in the standings, 39 seconds behind Nocentini, giving Astana the second, third and fourth spots.
Among other favorites, Christian Vande Velde of the U.S. is eighth, 1:24 behind; Andy Schleck of Luxembourg is 1:49 back in ninth; defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain is 2:52 back in 16th; and Cadel Evans of Australia is 3:07 back in 18th place.
Armstrong predicts the first big shakeout will come on Stage 15, when riders go from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, featuring an uphill finish.
“Now we’re going to have three or four days that probably won’t change the classification,” he said. “I think all of the favorites are considering that Verbier is the next big test.”
Sunday’s 100-mile stage from Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes took riders up two tough climbs, including the Tourmalet Pass, and through the Roman Catholic shrine town of Lourdes.
Fedrigo, a 30-year-old rider who won a Tour stage in 2006, and Pellizotti finished in 4 hours, 5 minutes, 31 seconds. The pack was 34 seconds behind.
“It’s pure happiness,” Fedrigo said after pulling ahead of Italy’s Franco Pellizotti following the final turn in Tarbes. “I knew I needed to go all out, and that’s what I did.”
The peloton got off to a quick start in the flats before the Aspin and Tourmalet passes. After 15 miles, Armstrong bolted ahead in a bid to catch breakaway riders, though the Texan was quickly caught by the pack.
Pellizotti and Fedrigo had surged in front with a bunch of breakaway riders before the 12-mile mark, and kept the lead for most of the stage. They crossed the Tourmalet Pass more than five minutes ahead of the peloton. They held on despite 42 miles remaining between the peak and the finish.
The main contenders were happy to let them go – Pellizotti was 15:23 off the race lead and Fedrigo 40:17 behind overall as the stage began.
In a group chasing the breakaway, Dutch rider Jurgen Van Den Broeck crashed on the downhill section.
The three-week Tour has its first rest day today. It then cuts a swathe from central to northeast France in the second week before entering the Alps in the final week before the July 26 finish in Paris. The turning point could come on the next-to-last race day up the fabled Mont Ventoux, which Armstrong has called the toughest climb in France.
“I think this race is going to get a lot harder, and our team won’t look the same or feel the same as it does now,” he said. “It’s still too close.
“Honestly, if I was Cadel Evans, or Andy Schleck, or Carlos Sastre, I would be waiting. I would wait for my moment in the Alps, on Ventoux, whatever, and I would stick it in as hard as I could. I would just pull the knife out and go.”
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